November 12, 2014 by Debra Gittler


When I first launched ConTextos, someone told me the following:

92% of non-profits will fail in their first year.

95% will fail within two years.

98% will fail by year three.

But for the less than 2% that make it to year five… well, they have a real chance of success and sustainability.

I’ve never verified this fact. I’ve heard similar anecdotes from traditional business, and witnessed real-life examples that suggest this might be true (but not amongst my Echoing Green colleagues! Those guys are warriors!)

So here it is. We are entering our fifth year. For the past twelve months I’ve repeated “in the last three years…” Now, suddenly, the language shifts. It’s been four years. We’re turning five.

Of course I’m bubbling over with pride. That my staff has matured in skills and commitment, that programming has evolved to be replicable and powerful, that teachers and students contest the power of our intervention.

I tell supporters and colleagues frequently that while I’m still inspired by our mission, I’m also deeply motivated by ConTextos’ staff, volunteers and collaborators. I am overwhelmed to know that my staff members have good jobs, that they enjoy great benefits, love their work and feel that their work is loyal and invested in them as professionals and people. To recognize that our volunteers continue to return because they feel that their support means something; not just to helping us reach our mission, but to help confront the sad story that is El Salvador’s current plague of violence and migration. And to see our donor-base grow and evolve. Just last week, a donor said: “You’re really teaching them to think!” We used to struggle to get donors and partners to see past the library development to understand the core of our work. Now they can’t stop talking about it.

So yes, I’m proud. But I’m also a little terrified.

See, we’re starting to exit “start-up” territory. For the past few years, we’ve had a green light to explore and experiment. To flaunt our failures as part of the journey, as steps along the path toward perfecting our model. I’ve grown so much as a leader—I actually FEEL like an Executive Director—and now mentor a handful of nascent social entrepreneurs because, gosh, I’ve got skills and insight that make me a meaningful mentor.

But we have so much more to learn. So much more to get better at. Of course, I’m exceedingly proud of how far we’ve come and have not a doubt about how far we’ll go, how dedicated and successful we will be. But how will we do it?

Last week, at our first annual Teacher Training Conference titled Literacy and Leadership, we hosted 200 teachers from 40 schools; just three years ago, we counted only 17 teachers from 3 schools. In this time, I’ve evolved from knowing every single school and every single teacher, to barely knowing anyone. Of course, I make sure to complete regular visits, and constantly engage with my staff to know names and anecdotes. But it’s not the same. I’m a different kind of leader now.

Now, I trust my staff to have the relationships with schools and teachers. Now, my job is to engage with our donors and supporters. To review the data and facts, the worries and joys the technical team compiles in order to help lead strategic planning for the future. To oversee finances and figures. To ensure that—to use yoga terminology—we are always at our growing edge: just comfortable enough to learn more and get better without pushing so hard as to cause harm.

At the conference, in my welcoming words, I explained how important this conference was. As a milestone for our growth to date, and as a commitment to ensuring that we will always make time and space to share with our teachers; to honor and celebrate their successes, to recognize the challenges, and mostly, to enjoy the professional camaraderie. But I also emphasized the urgency of the work. While we at ConTextos must remember to enjoy the privilege of working with teachers, and in turn teachers to enjoy working with kids, we must also recognize the urgency of our intentions.

In the past twelve months, thousands of children have literally walked out of El Salvador in search of better opportunity, to escape rampant violence and an impotent, outdated educational system.

Since founding ConTextos, I’ve known without a doubt that ours is a social justice mission. That reading and writing are foundational skills for critical-thinking, analysis, interpretation and creativity. That literacy sparks curiosity and questioning which in turn engage kids to think deeply not just about books and story, but about their surroundings; similarly, these skills are the basis for kids to propose new ideas, to become stakeholders and change agents.

Five years ago, though, these were just ideas. Now we see results and data. Now, we know so much more about what doesn’t work, with so much more to learn about what works best.

We’re not just a small start-up elbowing our way onto the scene anymore. We are at the door of success and sustainability. We can’t fail now. Because now, it’s not the failure of the organization at stake: it’s the risk of failing the thousands of kids we already serve, and the millions more we might one day reach.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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